Friday the first of July dawned cool and stormy, a fitting day on which to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the tragic Battle of the Somme. In tribute there was no 11am race, and instead the Last Post was played by a lone bugler from the Progress Boards box, in the middle of the river. It is likely that the hushed, motionless crowds on the bank numbered something in the region of 60,000 — the number of soldiers killed on the first day of that catastrophic four-month battle.
Further, the the official regatta history written soon after WWI ended listed all the previous regatta competitors who had died in the Battle of the Somme; the list ran to 25 pages.
Televised live, the pause was moving. The under-23 German women's quad from Hannover and Crefelder stopped after pushing off the raft, and sat with bowed heads, perhaps thinking of the many Germans who died on this day a century before. As the bugler played the Rouse, the traditional end to a public silence, the tranquil solemnity was broken by the sound of Phyllis Court, a riverside social club often nicknamed 'Syphilis Court' by rowers, announcing its lunch arrangements over the tannoy. Ooops. Nobody had told them the bugler would play twice....
On the river it was a day for broken dreams, more boom-crashes, advancements to the coveted Saturday semis, and another disqualification for another Australian crew, this time Adelaide in the Visitors' Challenge Cup for elite but non-national-team coxless fours. Marginally clear of the Holland Beker champions Oxford Brookes/Proteus-Eretes being steered by 2012 Olympic silver medallist Alex Partridge, Adelaide in the words of the race reporter "consistently steered in front of" their rivals, washing them down and at times getting close to contact. See the full video here.
When Brookes/Proteus jacked the rating up in the Enclosures and hauled the margin back to a couple of feet, umpire George Hammond decided that Adelaide had impeded their rivals enough to affect the result, and showed them a red flag at the end of the race. Polite dissent was expressed by the Antipodean crew to no avail, and the initial disqualification confirmed. .
On Saturday Brookes/Proteus will face the challenge of a comfortably fresh Cal four, who had an easy ride to the semi-finals on the same day that coach Mike Teti and strokeman Joachim Sutton were announced as Pac-12 award winners. The match-up between half the Cal national champion V8 and half the Boat-Race-winning Cambridge Blues crew should have been mouth-watering, but both fours set off with highly erratic steering.
Initially both headed for the island side, but Cal corrected sharply and nearly hit the start of the booms on their Berkshire station before straightening up. Meanwhile Cambridge were having trouble finding their line and suddenly hit the third Bucks-side boom, coming to a complete stop and effectively ending the race — they restarted but could not get back on terms. They appealed to (former Oxford Blue) umpire Matt Pinsent at the finish, who rather generously permitted a TV review of the footage. But that only confirmed that Cal's initial infringement on the Cambridge water had not cause the later crash, and the Bears' win was upheld, with a 'not rowed out' verdict. See the full video here
The Adelaide disqualification was just the most obvious tip of a rather big iceberg lurking this year. Future (and current) Henley Royal competitors be warned, the umpires are cracking down on poor steering, whether deliberate or unintentional.
It's tempting to speculate that now Henley's racing is preserved on video, the umpires have realised what many spectators have long known, that the unbuoyed nature of the two-lane space tends to let leading crews think the middle of the course is a legitimate area to sit and wash rivals down. Some do it out of fear of the booms or because watching the other boat pulls them over; some deliberately wash the oppo; and others use aggressive steering to put off the enemy in close races. There have been some terrible miscarriages of sporting justice in the past, dependent only on the potentially fallible memory of the umpires, but now we can see every incident from several angles.
The umpiring team are now warning coxes who infringe too much, taking drifting over and washing-down much more seriously even if it doesn't affect the result, and as we can see, are prepared to use their ultimate sanction, whether on coxed or coxless crews.
Another example of this on Friday was in the Remenham quarter-final between the Dutch and British women's development eights. The Brits racing as Leander and Tees took a quick lead and pulled out to such a healthily wide margin that the outcome was never in doubt. But Oxford cox Erin Wysocki-Jones then steadily drifted so far over onto the Dutch station that the contest resembled a head race.
After confirming the result, umpire Boris Rankov (yup, again) megaphoned to stop Leander going back to their raft, and gave Wysocki-Jones a stern ticking off both for drifting and for cheering Hollandia while the Dutch were still racing. See the full video here.
The PTC crew raced late as the Remenham got underway
Princeton University beat Molesey to advance to a rematch
Not all steering appeals worked: form crew Thames thought they'd been washed down by Upper Thames after losing by two-thirds of a length in the Wyfolds, but the umpire disagreed with that one. And not all crashes were racing ones. Columbia's lightweight national champions managed to bust a rigger hitting it on the dock while launching for their Temple Cup race against Oxford Brookes. It's not obvious why they didn't get a postponement (which is usually de rigeur for equipment failures) but instead the Lions quickly jumped into a loaned Hudson and went straight out to race. They were up against one of the most powerful eights in the event, Brookes having won the Head of the River outright this year, and the verdict was a predictable victory for the British crew.
Brookes now meet the Yale lightweights, who knocked out Cornell, while on the other side of the draw Cal beat an unexpectedly feisty Imperial College and Harvard's JV narrowly stayed ahead of University of London. Bearing in mind the new strictness about steering, Cal, who washed Imperial down for substantial chunks of the course, should take more care to stick to their side.
Harvard took U of L
Canada's Victoria City crews had a bad day, the men's development eight losing to the Dutch Olympic crew in the Grand, and the quad to the Czech national team in the Queen Mother. St Paul's (UK) took out the last remaining North American crew in the Princess Elizabeth schoolboy eights, running away from Jesuit College by three lengths, and a very strong Marlow crew accounted for Maritime A in the Fawley junior quads.
Oslo's Thames Cup eight, emboldened by their Thursday race against Sydney, took their second selected crew scalp in a row. They fought back through See-Club Luzern to bag a 1/3 length victory and now meet University Barge Club, who were pushed to their limit by Quintin on Friday. Unfortunately all three of the Prince Albert US coxed fours lost, each by precisely the same margin of 2.25 lengths.
In the singles events, Samantha Casto succumbed to Lithuanian under-23 world champion Ieva Adomaviciute, while the increasingly impressive Hannes Obreno from Belgium took out Greg Ansolabehere. Mahe Drysdale progressed serenely towards another Diamonds title, together with the Dutch men's eight providing a glimpse of top-flight rowing for the big crowd in a year otherwise devoid of Olympians.
International scullers Gasper Fistravec (Slovenia) and Dani Fridman (Israel), who paired up together after failing to qualify for the Olympics, look to be strong contenders for the Double Sculls cup, after defeating Germany's Appel and Syring by 2.5 lengths.
The habitual cruise-boat full of singing Elvises hasn't appeared yet to wow the crowds, but one coal-burning steamer nearly made crews choke as it puttered slowly up the course belching out stinking smoke ahead of one of the Remenham races. River traffic was slighter than usual, perhaps due to the variable weather, which alternated between micro-showers, brief glimpses of sun, and otherwise featured a slight head-wind under Turner-esque thundercloud skies.
Saturday brings semi-finals and hopefully more sunshine, and as the boat-tents empty, only two races stand between the crews still racing and the trophies. Henley is renowned for its attention to detail, and nowhere more evident than in the trophy tent where the large silver cups are on display. Each day at the regatta the trophies are rotated slightly, so that returning winners will always have the chance at some point to see their names engraved on the glittering metal and relive their glory year.
Notes from the course:
- Where some years you might only notice the Thames moving when specifically looking for it, the water surging up the racecourse looks like a proper river at a glance this week; add to that the steady and sometimes fierce headwind, times for even the top crews in tight races are coming in at almost a minute off record times. The conditions are also exacerbating the lane differences, with the Lane 1/Berks advantage being estimated between 3/4 and 1 1/2 lengths by some folks who know the course well.
- The life of a Steward: Greg Searle was dispatched to the press box crow's nest to secure a loose "safety lollipop" that shows red or green to indicate to crews if it is safe to go up the course , for which he was searching trash bags and the floor for an empty plastic water bottle. He noted that "a water bottle is perfect for it; you wedge it in there and the air expands against it and holds it in place against the wind." Failing to find one, he used a can, and then got on the radio to request a plastic bottle while he stayed in the press box letting crews know it was safe to go up the course via a megaphone.
- Yale has a true army of supporters here, with a sendoff brigade of impressive numbers; after the race, the appearance of each athlete from the locker rooms was applauded individually!
- Again today, some excerpts of the official race descriptions:
- University of California were very fast indeed off the start
- Drysdale sculled as a relentless machine. Naske hung on well for much of the course but Drysdale moved away up the Enclosures.
- Winer Lua and Villach moved very quickly into a lead that they developed strongly throughout over a crew that, frankly, simply was not in Stewards' class.
- An undramatic race
- Leander rowing more efficiently soon took control and moved away progressively to a comfortable win. Leader's steering was of a lesser standard to their rowing.
- The winner rowed their own race and kept to a steady pace
- The neat and well-drilled Warrington quad skipped off into the distance to win in comfort.
- Serpentine steering off the start did not help Durham, but in any case they did not have the power to match Edinburgh and Durham
- Many Henley participants feel like there are almost no losers on Saturday; the winners get to row in the final, and the losers are cut loose to join the festivities that peak tonight, with real fireworks along the banks, and lots of emotional fireworks throughout town. Good luck and safe racing (and everything else) to all!